Telegraph lines run within us. Networks of transmitters, autobahns, freeways, motorways, that might traverse entire countries, continents, worlds. It is within and between those lines that we vanish to each other. When I look at you, a picture arrives at my eyes, most likely aided by a pair of Johnson & Johnson 1 day Acuvue contact lenses, at a prescription of -3.75 (lens curvature 8.5), which I buy, mail-order, via the Canadian grey market. But no matter how what developments in neurology, optics or light might show us about this process, it remains that a process takes place that exceeds what can be shown on a retinal diagram. As pathways crackle and fizz, in flesh and in grey matter, or even where they fail to register, you have, to some extent, eluded me, and the wrapping of my internal processes around your image, elude you.
I write here in response to ‘Oculist Witness’, an exhibition at the Harris Museum curated by Clarissa Corfe, featuring the work of Sovay Berriman, Lindsey Bull, Ruth Claxton, and Richard Hamilton, which partially adopts the retinal, the visual, the optical, as its subject. But the exhibition’s picturing of vision is one that is complicated, veiled and obscured, as indicated by the title’s subheading (‘According to Duchamp, 1966’). The title of the show is taken from a 1966 work by Richard Hamilton, a screenprint on glass of three layered patterns with a circular logic, taken from an element of Marcel Duchamp’s epic work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23), created during Hamilton’s complete replica construction of the work made in dialogue with Duchamp. Both artists signed the edition included in this exhibition, troubling the idea of the ‘witness’ itself, as though the younger artist might be taking the mantle of ‘bearing witness’ from Duchamp. Three sunburst patterns on the glass were lifted by the Frenchman from optical sight tests – three layered rings that might also suggest irises or lines of sight. Being that they are printed on glass they also have the effect of both summoning sight whilst obscuring transparency.
Duchamp’s complex relationship to the optical is the subject of numerous volumes. One of the most deeply engaged and interpretively visceral interpretations can be found in several long passages by Rosalind Krauss in The Optical Unconscious (1993). Krauss grapples with Duchamp’s conception of vision over the span of his life, from his public works and statements through to his private projects (notablyÉtant donnés (1946-66), a secret work by the artist, discovered after his death, that placed the viewer at a peephole, so as to display a painting of a splayed female nude in a field, holding a lamp aloft in one hand). Krauss presents a Duchamp who believes that art has been preoccupied by a retinal mode since the Impressionists, throughout the Modernist period, a position that he sought to overturn. However, as Krauss writes, the French is not taking an ‘anti-retinal’ position, but rather more, objects to what he calls the “arret a la retine”:
[T]he stopping of the analytic process at the retina, the making of the interactions between the nerve endings—their coordinated stimulation and innervation—a kind of self-sufficient or autonomous realm of activity. Within the development of modernist painting, the consequence of this analysis was the reification of the retinal surface and the conviction that by knowing the laws of its interactive relationships, one possessed the algorithm of sight. (Krauss p.123-124)
Duchamp’s attention to the mechanics of sight leans towards a deeper physiology of seeing, and the artist seeks to figure art and sight deeper in the body and brain than simply on the eye, a position that might be seen to be reflected by the artists in the ‘Oculist Witness’ exhibition. In Ruth Claxton’s found postcards, such as Postcard (Portrait of an Old Woman), (2012), lines extending from the eyes have been cut away from the image using a scalpel. Two identical images, featuring a painting of an old woman, are placed next to one another, though one is reversed. The white wavy lines that Claxton has cut away from the image, which extend between these two pairs of eyes, immediately bring to mind sightlines: those seen in precisely in the kind of 17th century diagrams on perspective that Duchamp spent a great deal of time researching. The lines that extend between this woman and her reversed mirror image are caught in precisely the kind closed loop which might be described as an “arret a la retine”, following Duchamp. Another of Claxton’s works in the exhibition, Postcards (The Mystery of Faith) (2011), features two duplicate postcards, each of which has had a thick area gouged away in thin strips, so that, while we can parse the majority of the image by combining elements from each, a crucial part eludes us. On the right, however, we can discern a lamp held aloft, in a visual echo of Duchamp’s Étant donnés.
In contrast, the subjects of Lindsey Bull’s painted portraits, made in thick, soft strokes, resist us via different means. Young boys, twins with darkly hooded eyes, stare off blankly into the middle distance in Bull’s Statues (2015), providing us with little access to their flatness, which seems to be projected from the interior of the subjects’ bodies, rather than by their rendering by the artist. Twins’, with their shared eyes, have an understanding of one another: a form of sight also barred to outsiders. In Bow Tie (2015) a heavily made-up figure with a low ponytail, who reads, unsteadily, as male due to jaw shading and dress, has eyes closed and head bowed. The melancholic performer, though painted lushly, appears in a closed loop of interiority.
Sovay Berriman’s constantly evolving work, Entertainment Suite (2010-ongoing), on the other hand, resists visual processing via an engagement with the architecture and landscape of the work. This large sculpture, which has been adapted to respond to each situation in which it is shown, is something of an unsteady plywood stage, featuring reflective elements and a large ‘marker’: a bulbous blue shape that appears to act as a form of abstract location device for the sculpture. Whilst one cannot take in the work all at once with one’s eyes, having to walk around it, noticing the reflections of the architecture over the work’s surface, the sculpture also somehow demands that it is, in some senses, its location, requiring an embodied form of interaction with it. One must be, like the sculpture, a marker in the landscape, yet one cannot escape the embodiment of vision to stand outside of it, being performer and witness.
In thinking about pure visuality at a human scale, I imagine a landscape: an open road over a flat terrain, summoning forth the moment at which vision disappears over the horizon. Yet there is something here too, found in the years following Hamilton/Duchamp’s Oculist Witness, that eludes and recedes. Imagine the bleak interiority of the post-68 road movie – Easy Rider (1969), Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971). Those macadam roads stretch out before the principle characters in endless visibility, marked by white lines, but it’s in such a space where humans collapse into a kind of stillness and unknowability. In Two Lane Blacktop,
featuring the only central cinematic performances of musicians James Taylor, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, we find ourselves in the dim interior of a modified Chevrolet, shots that purposefully summon ennui and the actors’ refusal to perform as characters for the sake of entertainment. Here’s a long road, an epic horizon, with a refusal at its core. Much as you stare at them, the characters don’t give, and show little motivation for anything,. They find little relief in whatever they do. They remain bodies in a desert of sight, which serves to emphasise the importance of those roads that are possessed by the body’s interior, and which don’t yield to vision.
Writer’s Biography: Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Artforum, Art Agenda, ArtReview, Frieze, Flash Art International and Mousse, and has written numerous catalogue essays. Recent projects include Columbidae at Cell Project Space, London (2015), Till the stars turn cold at S1 Sheffield (2014) and Glasgow Sculpture Studios (2015), Geographies of Contamination at David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2014), and Performa 13, New York (2013). Her exhibition Our Lacustrine Cities is forthcoming at Chapter, New York (2015).
Vanishing point is commissioned by Harris Museum & Art Gallery. Oculist Witnesses: According to Duchamp, including works by Sovay Berriman, Lindsey Bull, Ruth Claxton and Richard Hamilton, is part of the Dance First, Think Later contemporary art programme curated by Clarissa Corfe.